Review | SummerFest’s ‘New Wine, Old Bottles’ mixes the familiar with the new

Thursday evening’s concert included a masterful performance by clarinetist Anthony McGill


BY LUKAS SCHULZE, San Diego Union Tribune

By the time of this printing, La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest will have drawn to a close. Music Director Inon Barnatan’s ambitious and thoughtful monthlong concert series has covered several centuries worth of music and mixed the familiar with the new. Thursday evening’s concert, dubbed “New Wine, Old Bottles,” combined the musical with the social for its theme: two of the pieces on the concert used instrumentation familiar to us from works by Schubert, and, well, there was a wine auction that took place after the intermission.


The newest work on the program, and the most important, was a compelling new work by composer Chris Rogerson. This was a world premiere, and an exciting one. Rogerson’s “Til it was dark” is scored for piano, violin, viola, cello and bass — the same instrumentation of Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet, hence the “new wine in an old bottle.” This a serious, big, new work. Rogerson understands the inherent drama in virtuosic instrumental writing and visceral, often risky, chamber ensemble relationships.


“Til it was dark” explores and showcases the resources of each instrument, from the grand piano chords of the opening (played with great command by pianist Wynona Wang) to the serpentine contrapuntal string lines in the second movement. Each movement is designed with clarity and with a sensitivity to how the body of a performer communicates dramatic power.


The collective visual energy of gestures that called for full and heavy bowing, for example, was gripping, and an array of textures moved from full-group unisons to soloistic flares that spun off from the tutti ensemble like sudden concertos. Rogerson has influences, to be sure, but they’re good ones: one hears modal harmonies that echo Stravinsky and Copland, and in the last movement, very effective polytonal writing evokes memories of Ives’ “Unanswered Question.” But there is a great deal of originality and substance in Rogerson’s language, all of wrought with craft and conviction.


Sadly, the programming of Jean Françaix’s “Octet” on the penultimate event of the festival seemed like an unfortunate miss. A pre-concert video identified Françaix as a neglected composer, but this 1972 work — included, probably, because it shares the instrumentation of Schubert’s own Octet — is hardly an argument for finding out more about him.


The work begins promisingly enough, with an austere and autumnal melancholy, but then dives into a morass of bathos from which it never emerges. Françaix surely knows how to write for instruments, and he shows the French facility for instrumental color, but this is an irredeemably vacant work. Early on, one imagines that its unflinching silliness might actually be critique, satire, an absurdist commentary on the hopelessness and desolation of modern urban life, but no: It’s simply a piece that goes so far as to quote “Jeepers Creepers” as it stitches together swaths of parlor-music, old musicals and assorted bits of 20th century musical detritus.


This was all the more unfortunate since it was played with grit and élan by the ensemble, with standout moments from bassist Anthony Manzo and violinists Benjamin Beilman and Sophia Stoyanovich. Truly, the programming of this piece seems like a badly missed opportunity for inclusion. That is, Françaix’s piece has surely been heard numerous times before. Is there really no work with this instrumentation by an underrepresented composer that might have fit the evening’s thematic idea?


There is an ineluctable emotional stamp on the incipit of just about all of Brahms’ mature chamber works — the opening seconds set an affective tone that can last the entire piece. His Op. 115 Quintet for Clarinet and Strings shows this, and it shows further his late-in-life mastery of compositional devices that maximize structural function and narrative pacing.


The story of this piece is fairly well-known: By 1891, Brahms had decided to stop composing. In March of that year, he had occasion to hear the clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, whose playing so astonished him, he abandoned his notion of retirement and quickly produced four works — the Clarinet Trio, the quintet, and two sonatas for clarinet and piano — that have become central to the clarinet repertoire.


Clarinetist Anthony McGill was masterful throughout the performance. The ghost of Mühlfeld looms over any player tackling this music, as the clarinet has a special role in all of Brahms’ music. McGill has a silken tone, but he possesses the admirable ability to vary it, moving into the foreground or receding into the ensemble as in the swirling textures of the first movement.


McGill became the protagonist gradually, easily, taking control of ensemble tempo and energy over the course of the opening Allegro. The Adagio, one of the summative moments in the clarinet repertoire, could only have been written by someone utterly in love with the timbre of this instrument. Brahms’ treatment of it recalls the devotion with which Bach sets Chorale melodies.

McGill was at home in the middle section’s eruptive flourishes, and he was supported firmly and elegantly by violinists James Ehnes and Andrew Wan.


The third movement Andantino begins as a new chapter in a fable, with needed direction after the stretched and extended intimacy of the slow movement, and here the playing of cellist Clive Greensmith provided just the processional motion to move the music forward. Both Greensmith and violist Jonathan Vinocour were impressive in their ability to blend and drive through unison tremolos and pizzicato passages.


It takes a moment to realize the last movement Con Moto is a theme and variations, only becoming clear in the first variation, which is largely written around a lyrical and roving cello figure, which Greensmith played with vigor and polish. The last variation ends with a cyclic return to the opening of the quintet, and McGill was able here to communicate, with the same material, a new and final solemnity.


Schulze is a freelance writer.


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